A Rabbi Not Afraid to Deviate

You might have to go all the way to Manhattan, or at least take a quick trip to Ashdod at the right time, to find an important rabbi with a hat and beard who openly deviates from the official Haredi line.

One such rabbi is Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto. When he returned to his hometown of Ashdod last week, he plunged right into the scandal involving the ancient graves at the hospital site in Ashkelon - and didn't hesitate to give his opinion.

"We are against mixing religion and politics. Lies and flattery married to each other: That's politics. We will never have anything to do with politics - for eternity," said Rabbi Pinto - and much more.

But wait a second, who is Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto?

One journalist-follower said - or warned - that this is a holy man.

"You can't believe how he behaves, what modesty. This is a man with enormous spirituality and Torah learning, don't compare him to all the others," said the journalist.

But the comparison is right there in the warning, in the superficial resemblance between Rabbi Pinto and his uncles, the sons of the Baba Sali from Netivot. There's also such a resemblance to the "X-ray" rabbi, and the tractor-driver rabbi from Gush Katif. There is no shortage of rabbis, many of them descendents of rabbinic dynasties, who have been blessed with charisma and devotees, including millionaires and celebrities.

X-ray rabbi

Last week, on the day we went to Ashdod to meet with the rabbi, Yaron London had an article in Yedioth Aharonoth about the X-ray rabbi and his wealthy followers.

"The X-rays and their ilk make their living from the feeble self-confidence of the Dankners and others like them," wrote London.

However, the focus of this article is Rabbi Pinto, and not how he compares to the miracle workers, or how holy he is.

The rabbi, whose father Rabbi Haim Pinto was recently appointed chief rabbi of Ashdod, has never granted an interview. But last week, for the first time, he allowed Haaretz to document a conversation with a few of his patrons, who provided NIS 10 million to finance his charitable activities in Israel for Passover.

The discussion touched on the U.S. financial crisis, the diplomatic crisis between Israel and the U.S., the ultra-Orthodox leadership and matters of religion and state.

The business leaders who follow Rabbi Pinto, in Israel and abroad, are mostly non-religious. They don't consider him a prophet, but rather a spiritual guide who makes wise judgments about business and the modern world. Those we spoke to said the rabbi advises them, endows them with "energies," and serves as a "father figure," along with giving their actions significance. But that does not mean he always tells them what they want to hear.

"Your entire life is a challenge. A person is born to work hard, but his role is to hold on to faith and to know that everything comes from the Blessed Be He. ... Life is painful, life is hard," he told his followers. He added that this is a period of change, for both religion and business. It won't be good for everyone, "but there will be opportunities."

Pinto is not well-known in Israel. The center of his life is in Manhattan, but his spiritual and material affairs cover the world. At age 37, his followers already refer to him with titles reserved for great Hassidic rebbes, and he has turned his tiny Ashdod yeshiva into an international powerhouse supported entirely by donations. A few years ago, he moved to Manhattan to receive medical treatment. From there he oversees his enterprise, and every few days takes a quick trip to visit followers in far-flung Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Kiryat Malakhi, Ashkelon, Ashdod and more.

His network is called Shuva Israel (Return Israel), and it runs yeshivot, synagogues, ritual baths, community centers, food kitchens and other charitable institutions.

Last week, thousands came to see Pinto in Ashdod. While the followers may have appeared to be in the wrong place, all they wanted was to enter the synagogue and receive a bottle of wine and some matza for Passover.

Many of his followers believe he has mystical powers, but if he does, he does not show them off. He graduated from Ashkenazi Lithuanian yeshivot, and was the student of famous Ashkenazi and Hassidic rabbis. But he is also the descendent of two lines of great Moroccan rabbis.

He has a particularly strong influence on the Jewish business community in New York, mostly among former Israelis. These are the people who have given him millions, and many were hurt by the crash there. The rabbi worries about the situation of the Jews there.

"Once there was great arrogance in America. Now, for many, the laughter and happiness has been wiped out," he told his followers. He feels the Jewish business community in America is now under attack. "The Jewish people need to be strong, and maintain their belief as we march toward new times, confusing [times]."

And what about the government's policies toward the Palestinians and the Arab world, the rabbi was asked?

"We were not in the army. My son will not serve in the army," he answered. "How can I say things and give advice as to whether Israel should return territory? What moral power do we have to say such a thing?"